Hot tracks

Chinese singer-songwriter Li Jian continues to breathe life into lyrical mid-tempo tracks with his exquisite pipes, picking up where he left off with his breakout fifth album, Classic, which earned a clutch of nominations at last year's Golden Melody Awards, including for Best Mandarin Album.

Many of the songs evoke the natural world such as Deep Sea Search, Beautiful As Dawn and Wind Blows At Dusk. The imagery is apt given that one can easily imagine his voice in such settings.

It can be as gentle as a sunbeam, as bright as a sparkling sea or it can take flight on a gust of wind. He croons on Disappearing Moonlight: "When I welcome the fragrance the spring wind brings/How I wish you could linger by my side."

  • ASIAN POP

    LI JIAN 6TH

    ALBUM

    Li Jian

    Beijing Perfect Persistence Cultural Arts Studio

    *** 1/2

There are darker undercurrents as well. On Fog, he sings: "Your place is like the ocean/ Some struggle and sink to the bottom, never heard of again."

That is a fate that seems unlikely to befall Li. He is touring China and maybe the wind will blow him to Singapore's shores someday soon.

Boon Chan


The 25-year-old French American's last album, the breakthrough Womanchild, got a rave review in this column in 2013. Salvant's highly anticipated follow-up shows a young artist struggling to define her identity, to mixed results.

From low throaty growls in Growlin' Dan to sweetly girlish highs in The Trolley Song, she navigates ranges with ease.

  • JAZZ

    FOR ONE TO LOVE

    Cecile McLorin Salvant

    Mack Avenue

    Records

    *** 1/2

She mimics with accurate theatricality the vocal tics of Judy Garland in The Trolley Song and delivers with energetic storytelling Stepsister's Lament from Rodgers and Hammerstein's 1957 musical Cinderella.

Unfortunately, these dated tunes are delivered fairly straight, if with skill, which in this post-modern ironic age, simply does not work.

In fact, these tunes come out sounding slightly twee because her voice is technically so precise, so pristine, that the songs are stripped of any emotional nuance. Salvant's academic approach to the melodies is admirable, but one starts wishing for more grit after the first couple of polished numbers. I suspect the vocal pyrotechnics will be far more impressive in a live setting, where her undeniably nimble voice, dipping and soaring by turns, can carry the energy of a live performance.

In the simultaneously more detached and more intimate ambience of an album, her voice skims the surface without plumbing the depths of a lyric.

And this is where her originals come into their own. She has penned five songs in this work and these confessional ballads sound closer to the bone, especially in Left Over, where her penchant for Betty Carter-style note-bending dovetails well with the plaintive lover's lament, and Monday, where her ability to negotiate chord and pitch changes makes you wish this skimpy sketch would develop into a fuller portrait.

This album, despite bumps, is nonetheless technically polished enough to merit more than a couple of listens.

Ong Sor Fern


  • CLASSICAL

    VIRTUOSITY:MUSIC IS LIKE A MIRROR

    EuroArts 2061288

    ****

The 14th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, held in Fort Worth, Texas, in 2013, was the first edition of the United States' most prestigious competition to take place after the death of its muse, American pianist Van Cliburn (1934-2013).

He had become an international superstar and national hero after winning the Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition in 1958.

The competition's documentary movie, directed by Christopher Wilkinson, has a linear narrative, beginning with 30 competing pianists arriving from all over the world, the piano selection process and performance footage, all the way to the prize presentation ceremony.

Its focus is on the pianists as individuals with high hopes and ambitions, who stake their reputations and lives for their art.

Even the "losers" get a look-in, particularly the baby-faced American Steven Lin (an audience favourite who was perhaps deemed to lack gravitas) and the angst-ridden Italian Alessandro Deljavan (who probably displayed too much angst for comfort).

In the bonus section, there are performances by the prize winners Vadym Kholodenko (in Liszt's Wilde Jagd), Beatrice Rana (Ravel's Scarbo) and Sean Chen (Scriabin's Sonata No. 5).

Through the proceedings, one gets the subliminal message that this competition, with typically American glitz, glamour and big money, was becoming a triumph of youthful proficiency and marketability over plain and good old (and sometimes boring) artistry.

Chang Tou Liang


  • 20TH-CENTURY CLASSICS

    SHOSTAKOVICH SYMPHONY NO. 9 VIOLIN CONCERTO NO. 1

    Leonidas Kavakos, violin/Mariinsky Orchestra/Valery Gergiev

    Mariinsky 0524

    *****

Here are two works by Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) that could have landed him in trouble.

In the eyes and ears of Soviet cultural watchdogs under the Stalinist regime, their musical message would have been marked as subversive. His Ninth Symphony Op. 70 was composed in 1945 near the end of the Great Patriotic War and, instead of a grand life-affirming Ninth in the joyous manner of Beethoven, the result was a short and wry account of faux-rejoicing.

There are three fast movements of enforced gaiety separated by two dark slow movements. The fourth and fifth movements are linked by a mocking bassoon solo, an instrument he frequently associated with bumbling bureaucracy.

The First Violin Concerto (originally Op. 77, later revised to Op. 99) was completed in 1948, but its premiere was withheld until 1955, after the death of Stalin. A pessimistic tone and the incorporation of Jewish klezmer elements were deemed inappropriate during a climate of artistic censorship and anti-Semitism.

It has now become one of the most performed 20th-century concertos and Greek violinist Leonidas Kavakos gives a searing performance that does not stint on its communicative power and shock value. The Mariinsky Orchestra under Valery Gergiev is close to ideal interpreters, acutely aware of the music's trenchant qualities and having Shostakovich's ironic idiom in its blood.

Chang Tou Liang

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 23, 2015, with the headline 'Hot tracks'. Print Edition | Subscribe